Eight years after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, authorities have come to no firm conclusions about why and exactly where the airplane went down. Theories abound on both counts. The search for the Boeing 777’s probable last resting place at the bottom of the southern Indian Ocean has proved long, complicated, and expensive. So when a British engineer claimed recently to have devised a new method of locating the last airborne moments of MH370 more precisely, and hence the location of the wreckage, new headlines about the extraordinary disappearance have re-emerged. The trouble is other investigators who have devoted much time and expertise to the matter do not find his method credible.
Richard Godfrey claims that a little-known database created by amateur radio enthusiasts can track flight paths. The Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR) network contains messages opportunistically transmitted on the high frequency (HF) radio bands to evaluate propagation conditions. Receivers log the message content, the transmitter callsign and location, along with the signal-to-noise ratio (S/N), frequency, and frequency drift of the messages as received.
Godfrey theorizes that the interactions of the radio waves with aircraft cause anomalies in the S/N and frequency, even if they are flying thousands of miles away from the sender or receiver. He is trawling the massive WSPRnet database with special software to identify and analyze the signals close to the time of MH370’s disappearance. He said that WSPR data on an HF radio transmission between Switzerland and Australia have already identified MH370 while it was still being tracked by radar over the Gulf of Thailand. In his latest report, Godfrey says that over 200 WSPRnet links “are candidates for MH370 detection and tracking.”
Godfrey is a former member of the MH370 Independent Group (IG) of engineers and scientists who have aided the authorities in trying to determine the fate of MH370. “A number of contributors, both IG members and others, have analyzed the WSPRnet data and not found anything that can be described as the detection of an aircraft,” said Don Thompson, a member of the group. He told AIN that the received S/N of HF transmissions constantly changes and that the messages propagate by means of ionospheric refraction in paths that are too diffuse for practical use as a location tool. Moreover, the signal strengths are far too weak at long distances. Victor Iannello, another member of the group, experimented with his own amateur radio before concluding that even if ideal conditions did allow a WSPR signal to be forward-scattered by an aircraft, it would be masked at the receiving station by the stronger direct signal.
Prior to this latest controversy, some of the independent investigators attempted to define more accurately the aircraft’s flight path before and after it apparently set its final course. They used raw radar data that Malaysian ATC gathered as MH370 flew over the Strait of Malacca. A gap of knowledge exists between the last radar trace and the first of the position plots made possible by the aircraft’s automatic ‘handshakes’ with the Inmarsat ground station in Perth. In addition to filling that gap, they hoped that their new analysis could reduce potential errors in the frequency offset calculations by Inmarsat. Meanwhile, the group re-examined fuel consumption data for the Boeing 777.
Thompson told AIN that none of the work has identified any new areas of ocean that crews should search.
In 2018, oceanographic survey specialists Ocean Infinity used autonomous multisensor underwater vehicles to comb an area larger than authorities originally searched and found nothing. But, Thompson added, the searched areas might well still hide the wreckage because the seabed topography made it a challenge to operate the vehicles at an optimal altitude above the seabed. Large underwater ridges and gullies mark the search area.
Ocean Infinity has since deployed improved technology on other searches and survey work. But there seems little likelihood that it would get any official encouragement or sponsorship to resume the search for the wreckage of MH370, not least by the Malaysian government, which has reason to fear the confirmation of “an inconvenient truth.”
Most serious investigators concluded long ago that the circumstantial evidence that points to “murder-suicide” by MH370’s Captain Zahari was too strong to ignore. The original Malaysian air accident investigation, conducted as an ICAO Annex 13 process, closed without reaching a conclusion. So did a long supplementary report issued in mid-2018 before the Malaysian investigation team disbanded. But it did state that the three unexplained turns that placed the Boeing 777 on course for a watery ending “are difficult to attribute to any system failures.” Rather, it said, “It is more likely that such maneuvers are due to the systems being manipulated.”
The supplementary report also discussed the result of a search of Zahari’s home by the Malaysian police. It found a route resembling the airliner’s known diversion path on his personal flight simulator. Despite that, the Malaysian lead investigator told a press conference that the loss of MH370 could not “have been an event committed by the pilot.”
Meanwhile, the many theories about the disappearance continue to recirculate. While one can dismiss many of them, the question of Zahari’s motivation for a murder-suicide remains obviously critical. Not long after the disappearance, his wife and daughter revealed that family relationships had broken down. In 2015, AIN noted the possibility that his disillusionment with Malaysian politics might have been a contributing factor. Then came credible suggestions that Zahari was clinically depressed. Also, the supplementary report mentioned chronic pain that Zahari suffered after he damaged his vertebrae in an accident, raising the question: Had he been taking pain-relieving drugs that induced psychotic episodes? The mystery endures.